Do You Need Vitamin Supplements?

end-of-the-bottle-1495091One of my pet peeves is when people are taken advantage of by the diet industry. When someone dangles a magical carrot in front of those struggling for answers to a difficult problem, it is hard not to jump on it. Things like diet pills have been around for a long time, but what about vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements? So many people I have known throughout the years have spent a lot of money on these. Are they necessary? If so, which ones do we need and why? How much to we take and when do we take them?

Since every person is different, I will not even attempt to answer that question, however I will share with you the situations I have encountered where it is smart to get some guidance on whether or not to take a supplement. I also will explain some basics so that you might be able to have a better understanding of the issue, and make more informed decisions. When it comes to nutrition, we often refer to “macronutrients” and micronutrients”:

Macronutrients: include carbohydrates, proteins (amino acids) and lipids (fats). These all contain carbon (“organic”) and provide energy to our body (they provide us with calories and are needed in larger amounts than micronutrients). We obtain the macronutrients from food. Some people buy supplemental protein powder, drinks or bars, or they may buy certain supplemental fats such as fish oil or coconut oil. Some athletes may buy supplemental carbohydrate (I remember a very high carbohydrate product that came in a tube that many of my bicycling friends used to use for an instant glucose source while biking long distances).

Micronutrients: include vitamins (C, A, D, E, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, folic acid, B12, B6, biotin, pantothenic acid) and minerals (iron, zinc, calcium, phosporous, magnesium, copper, selenium, etc). We need these in very small amounts and they also are provided in foods. Although vitamins contain carbon, minerals do not. Vitamins and minerals do not provide any energy to our body (they are not a source of calories like macronutrients). They DO however function in many reactions in our body that help us utilize energy, and provide other important functions. Consider the mineral iron (part of hemoglobin) which helps to carry oxygen to our muscles so we can move. Or the mineral calcium that besides contributing to our bone structure also acts as a catalyst in many reactions in our body. The vitamins niacin, thiamin and riboflavin play major roles in glucose and energy metabolism while vitamins C, A and E may serve as antioxidants along with other functions. But just because the micronutrients perform all of these functions does not mean the more you take in the better.

Besides the macro and micronutrients, there are other substances that help our bodies stay healthy such as antioxidants. Again, these are obtained from food, but also offered in supplements. Take a walk down the vitamin isle in any store and you will also see enzymes, energy enhancers, protein supplements, the list goes on and on.  Everything is pretty tempting if you just glance at the labels! Who wouldn’t want more energy, better sleep, more stamina, less hot flashes, clear skin, better eyesight, improved digestion, disease prevention? How do you decide if you need any of these products?

I suggest taking a look at your usual dietary intake. If your insurance covers it, or you want to invest in even one visit with a Registered Dietitian, you would be able to get a good assessment of your needs and what you might be missing in your diet. Women of child bearing age or who are pregnant or nursing have very different needs than a postmenopausal woman. Elite athletes have different needs than a sedentary office worker. People with food allergies, or vegetarians or vegans are going to need some very specific advice on the nutrients they are missing and how to meet their needs with diet, or if supplementation is necessary.

What are some of the concerns with supplementation when you do it on your own without expert advice? (Please don’t trust someone who works in a health food store, remember they are usually trying to sell their products. Unless they have at least a degree in nutrition, I would be leery).

  1. For most vitamins and minerals your body can can only absorb a certain amount. Any additional (such as mega doses) may be lost in the urine or feces, or worse, interfere with the absorption of other nutrients, or some may have negative side effects, depending on the person.
  2. Some supplements interfere with the function of prescribed medications. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplement.
  3. You never really know what you are getting, especially with herbal supplements. They are not regulated as a drug and may contain more or less than the label says.
  4. They are expensive. Food is usually cheaper.
  5. Protein powders are risky, especially for teens or children because it is easy to add too much. Excessive protein can put stress on your kidneys and this can be dangerous.
  6. There are many healthy benefits in real foods that we do not even understand yet. Some things you just can’t bottle.

Some suggestions:

  • If you are a picky eater or have eliminated an entire food group (such as dairy or meat) from your diet for whatever reason, you may need a supplemental source of a vitamin or mineral (such as calcium) or you may need to learn about alternative sources of macronutrients such as protein. Talk to a registered dietitian (RD) for advice or check out Academy of Nutrition and for more information or to find an RD near you.
  • If you are pregnant or planning to be, talk to your doctor or a Registered Dietitian about obtaining all of the nutrients you need to promote a healthy pregnancy.
  • If you do decide to get a supplement, avoid those with greater than 100 percent of the Daily Recommended Intake.
  • ALWAYS talk to your doctor before taking any supplement or herbal product as many of these can be dangerous depending on your condition or other medications.
  • Never give a supplement to a child without consulting with your pediatrician.
  • For more information, check out: NIH: Should You Take Dietary Supplements?

We also need water of course since our bodies are over half water and water helps to make all those reactions happen among other important functions. We need electrolytes such as sodium, chloride and potassium, and we also need fiber. Remember, that good ole boring advice: eat a balanced diet of all food groups, proteins, grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables. And use all the money you save from buying supplements for something much more fun!

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